Popular Unity

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Popular Unity

Chile 1970-1973


Nearly 11 years after the Cuban Revolution, the socialist Salvador Allende was elected through a democratic process as president of the Republic of Chile to head a left-wing coalition called Popular Unity. His economic and social platform aimed to decrease Chile's dependence on other nations and the social inequality that dominated the country. Weakened by internal and external strife, by dissension within its own party ranks, and by grassroots demonstrations in the streets, the Popular Unity government faced a particularly adverse economic situation and had only implemented a part of its program three years after the election. On 11 September 1973 the government was ousted in a coup d'état that brought General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte to power and neoliberalism to Chile.


  • 1955: African and Asian nations meet at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, inaugurating the "non-aligned" movement of Third World countries.
  • 1960: Congo, along with several other African nations, becomes independent. But as the province of Katanga secedes and pro-Soviet Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba disappears (he is later murdered), the country devolves into civil war. Soon, UN troops will arrive to restore order.
  • 1965: Arrest of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and more than 2,600 others in Selma, Alabama. Three weeks later, in New York City, Malcolm X is assassinated.
  • 1967: Biafra secedes from Nigeria, starting a three-year civil war.
  • 1970: Gamal Abdel Nasser, father of Arab nationalism and mentor of younger leaders such as Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, dies.
  • 1971: East Pakistan declares its independence, as the new nation of Bangladesh, from East Pakistan (now simply known as Pakistan); civil war, exacerbated by famine and a cholera epidemic in Bangladesh, ensues.
  • 1972: On 5 September, Palestinian terrorists kill 11 Israeli athletes and one West German policeman at the Olympic Village in Munich.
  • 1973: Completion of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, built at a cost of $750 million. The 110-story buildings are the world's tallest, but by year's end they will be eclipsed by the Sears Tower in Chicago.
  • 1976: In a daring raid on an Air France plane hijacked by supporters of the Palestinians, Israel commandoes rescue 103 passengers at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
  • 1978: U.S. Senate approves a measure presented by President Carter the year before, to turn the Panama Canal over to Panama by 2000.
  • 1983: A Palestinian terrorist drives an explosive-laden truck into the U.S. Marine compound in Beirut, killing 237 marines.
  • 1988: Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto becomes the first female prime minister of a Muslim country.

Event and Its Context

The June 1954 overthrow of the reform government of the socialist Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala was ordered by the United States, which saw its economic interests threatened by the agrarian reform program. The overthrow opened a new era in Latin American left-wing history. All attempts to reform social conditions by legal means were apparently destined to failure; it appeared that the only hope of introducing socialism was by revolutionary means. In January 1959 the Cuban Revolution seemed to many activists to confirm this hypothesis. Shortly after, the United States embarked on a policy of "preventive coup d'état" that aimed to crush any further left-wing victories in their Latin American backyard. The 4 September 1970 electoral victory of Allende in Chile (with 36.3% of the votes, against 34.9% for the conservative right-wing candidate, Jorge Alessandri, and 27.8% for the Christian-Democrat Radomiro Tomic) therefore came as a surprise. That victory illustrated the strategy of nonviolent transition toward socialism as defined by the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956. In his victory speech, Allende insisted that his ascendance was both democratic and revolutionary and was going to benefit the Chilean people: "I won't be just another president. I will be the first president of the first really democratic, popular, national and revolutionary government in the history of Chile."

Two months of political negotiation testified to the anxiety inspired by Popular Unity in Chile as well as abroad. Allende then assumed office on 4 November 1970. He announced the creation of a coalition government comprising four socialists, three communists, three radicals, two social-democrats, two independent members, and one member of the Christian left. For the first time in Chile's history, four ministers were former workers: the communist JoséOyarce, minister of work and social planning; Américo Zarilla, minister of finance; Pascual Barraga, minister of public works and transport; and Carlos Cortés, minister of housing and urbanism. In one of his first public addresses, Allende aimed to reassure the industrial and financial sector as well as the country's economic partners. He expressed his commitment to using only legal measures in his bid to transform Chilean society and even claimed that his reforms were a continuation of those of his predecessor, the Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Montalva, who had, he argued, only gone part of the way. Popular Unity had presented its electoral platform in December 1969; its most significant social and economic measures included the continuation and acceleration of agrarian reform, the complete nationalization of the copper mining industry and of the banks and the strategic production sector, increased wages, and broader social security coverage. These were to be the key features of "Chile's road to socialism" as presented by the new president in his first speech to congress in May 1971.

When Allende came to power, however, the economic and social situation was critical. A huge debt had been left by the Frei administration, including a foreign debt of over $2 billion and a budgetary deficit of $150 million. The election period had been difficult, production was partially paralyzed, and a huge drain of capital out of the country exacerbated the symptoms of crisis in a country that already had galloping inflation and rising unemployment. In its first weeks in power, the government implemented important measures to calm social unrest and to increase employment: in November 1970 it granted amnesty to political prisoners, restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, withdrew a proposed electricity price increase, granted social security rights to all part-time workers, implemented an emergency plan providing for the construction of 120,000 residential buildings, resumed payment of pensions and grants, and allocated 3,000 scholarships to Mapuches children in a bid to integrate the native minority into the educational system. The following month, the government signed a protocol agreement with the United Centre of Workers (CUT) granting workers representational rights on the funding board of the Social Planning Ministry; created a central commission to oversee a tripartite payment plan in which equal place was given to government, employees, and employers; sent 55,000 volunteers to the south of the country to teach writing and reading skills and provide medical attention to a sector of the population hitherto ignored; and fixed bread prices.

Apart from these emergency measures aimed at the poorest section of the population, the government presented a broad outline for structural reform. The first element was a Keynesian-based economic recovery plan initiated by Minister for the Economy Pedro Vuskovic, a sort of Chilean New Deal based on redistribution of wealth and an attempt to freeze partially the rising commodity prices (the 1970 price increase was 35%). If one takes into account the salary increases introduced on 1 January 1971 and the bonuses and increases in welfare benefits, the salaries of the lowest-paid workers and peasants may have risen by as much as 100%. The consequences were immediate: a spending fever hit the lowest income groups and industrial production suddenly took off again (production increased by 10% a year in 1971 and 1972), commercial activity revived, and unemployment dropped off. To boost the increase in production and avoid a commodity shortage that might have escalated prices, the government took various measures to help small-and medium-sized industries: on 3 February 1971, for instance, the government lowered interest rates on loans to the productive sector from 24% to 18%. The results were rapid: within a few months, inflation dropped to 20% and unemployment dropped to below 4%.

The second element of Allende's social and economic policy was the furthering of agrarian reform. Using Frei's law of 1967, the new government appropriated and redistributed within six months nearly as many properties as the Christian Democrat government had in six years. Between 1970 and 1973, six million hectares were distributed among approximately 100 thousand peasant families who became property owners, and the state took control of larger holdings henceforth to be run on a cooperative basis. At the same time new peasant councils meant that the peasant population was to be integrated into the decision-making process on rural development. Participation in the political process was thereby opened up in a country where access to political power had been limited to a small elite.

The last facet of this groundbreaking policy was an ambitious program of nationalization along the lines sketched out in the Popular Unity platform to eradicate monopoly capitalism at home and abroad. The program began in December 1970 in the textile industry with the appropriation of Bellavista Tome, a company whose directors had almost ceased production when Allende's victory had been announced in September. The following year it was the turn of the banking and chemical sector and, spurred on sometimes by striking workers, the iron, steel, and coal industries. Finally, in July 1971 a constitutional amendment unanimously voted by the Congress provided a legal basis for the nationalization of the copper industry. In October, Allende presented a bill on the areas de la economía y participación de los trabajadores that defined the three types of property (private, social or state, and mixed) that would form the basis of Chile's socialism.

All of these reforms provoked dissent, which slowed down the social reconstruction of the country. The United States felt that its interests in Chilean industry was threatened by the nationalization policy and silently set in place an embargo on Chilean goods. In September 1971 Allende reneged on the principle of compensation for the appropriated foreign companies (such as Kennecott and Anaconda in the copper sector) on the grounds that they had made enormous profits previously and had thereby aggravated the economic war waged by the Nixon administration and decreased foreign investment even further. On the other hand, the financial and industrial sectors teamed up with representatives of North American businesses such as Ford and ITT and formed a liberal right-wing, and sometimes extreme right-wing, nucleus of opposition to Popular Unity. Finally, a segment of public opinion and some members of the coalition government remained convinced that the country could only be radically transformed and socialism introduced by armed conflict. This was the position of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR) activists, whose charismatic leader, Miguel Enriquez, advocated physical elimination of the most hard-core opponents.

The increasing number of strikes organized either by employers opposed to nationalization (notably the truck drivers' strikes in October 1972 and August 1973, led by Leon Vilarín) or by workers demanding that the socialization of the economy be speeded up (for example, El Teniente miners in April 1973 insisted that the promised wage increases be introduced) slowed down economic recovery in the first year and helped bring back high inflation. Further, the global market impeded recovery: the international market price of copper dropped, depriving Chile of essential financial resources and preventing Allende from furthering his socialist policies. The attempt to integrate military men such as General Carlos Prats into the government and to open the coalition to the more progressive elements of the Chilean church did not assuage tensions. In July and August 1973 the economy was so seriously paralyzed that inflation reached 320% and the budget deficit amounted to 115% of the state's receipts. Any attempt on the part of the government to boost economic revival became illusory in the context of such hostility to the Popular Unity and its inability to maintain public order: these were the grounds on which the armed forces would justify the coup d'état of 11 September.

Popular Unity was a hybrid of ideological positions, an attempt to pursue the Marxist-Leninist tradition within constitutional norms combined with an ad-hoc Keynesianism, and a mystique of revolution of the Castro/Guévara variety. Because it was of such short duration and because the regime that followed undid all the structural changes that it had introduced, it left hardly any trace in Chilean society. Nevertheless it continues to perpetuate a golden legend of popular government and peaceful transition toward socialism, an image of the hope to which it gave rise in its own time not only in Latin America but also in Europe. In the late 1970s numerous left-wing leaders took inspiration from Popular Unity on how to get into power on the basis of a large left-wing coalition, from the Italian communist Enrico Berlinguer, who pursued a historic compromise with the Christian Democrats, to the French socialist François Mitterrand, who worked with the Communist Party on a joint platform. A political myth whose ramifications go far beyond the Chilean borders, Popular Unity still awaits from historians the nonpartisan analysis and appraisal to which it could never aspire in its own time and has rarely been granted since.

Key Players

Allende Gossens, Salvador (1908-1973): After running unsuccessfully in 1952, 1958, and 1964, Allende was elected president of Chile in 1970. The first socialist to be elected to the office of president in Chile, he held his position until 1973, when he was overthrown during a military coup d'état directed by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. Although Allende was given the opportunity to flee Chile and live in exile, he declined, refusing to leave the presidential offices, where he was found dead on 11 September 1973. Allende's government introduced broad economic and social changes in Chile, including the nationalization of many businesses as well as land reform initiatives that aimed to redistribute the ownership of land. Allende sought to establish socialist reforms while maintaining existing democratic institutions.

Pinochet Ugarte, Augusto (1915-): Rising through the ranks of the Chilean army, Pinochet became an army general in 1971 and was named chief major general of the army in 1972. He was named commander in chief of the army on 23 August 1973. In September that year he led the four-man military junta that planned and executed the coup d'état that overthrew Salvador Allende. In 1974 Pinochet assumed the role of president, a position he held until 1990, when he was ousted by Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin after a general election. Pinochet kept his position as commander in chief of the army until 1998, when he was named to a life term as senator. Pinochet was arrested during a trip to London in 1998, after appeals by the Spanish government that sought to have him extradited to Spain to face charges of murder and terrorism. In 1999 a British court decided to grant Pinochet's extradition to Spain, a decision that was then appealed.

See also: Guatemalan Coup Orchestrated by CIA.



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—Olivier Compagnon